Hannibal of Carthage: Military Commander and Greatest Enemy of Rome
Throughout time there have been great military leaders, whose leadership skills have shaped and defined the path of human civilization. One such military leader was Hannibal Barca. Hannibal was a Carthaginian general who fought against Rome during the second Punic war. His name became synonymous with inciting fear, and to this day he is considered one of the greatest military leaders of all time.
Hannibal was born in Carthage (known as Tunisia today) in 247 BC to Carthaginian leader Hamilcar Barca. He had two brothers – Hasdrubal and Mago, and several sisters. When Hannibal was a young boy, he begged his father to take him along when he left for an overseas war. Hamilcar took Hannibal to Spain, and made his young son promise that he would never be a friend to Rome. Years later, Hamilcar died in battle, leaving one of Hannibal’s brothers-in-law as the leader, with Hannibal serving as an officer. Eventually, Hannibal’s brother-in-law was assassinated, and Hannibal became commander-in-chief through proclamation of the army and appointment by the Carthaginian government. This occurred when Hannibal was around 26 years old and he was married to an Iberian princess named Imilce.
A marble bust, reputedly of Hannibal. Capua, Italy ( Wikipedia)
One of Hannibal’s most notable achievements was his crossing of the Alps into Italy, where he sought to join up with anti-Roman allies in the region. There has been much scholarly debate as to Hannibal’s exact path through the Alps, but it is the consensus that the journey was treacherous. It was spring 218 BC, and Hannibal had more than 100,000 troops, and approximately 40 war elephants. Hannibal knew that the journey through the Alps would be very difficult, and he planned ahead by having scouts report to him on particular conditions. The army faced the harsh climate of the Alps, in addition to guerilla attacks from indigenous tribes. The tribes would roll heavy stones into the path of the army in attempts to prevent them from passing through. Hannibal had to find a way to get through the passage of the Allobroges, a Gallic tribe of ancient Gaul. He sent out spies, who discovered that the Allobroges were only in position during the daytime, and left those positions at night. Hannibal’s strategy was to convince the Allobroges that the army would not attack at night. Thus, Hannibal’s army set up camp and lit many fires to give the appearance that they were settling in for the night. Once the Allobroges left their posts at the end of the day, Hannibal’s army stormed through the pass, bypassing any resistance.
Hannibal’s route of invasion ( Creative Commons )
As the army completed their ascent of the Alps, Hannibal placed his men in the brush, approximately 100 feet above the marching army, in hopes of attacking any tribes that approached. However, when hostiles did attack, Hannibal lost many men and soldiers over the steep cliffs, as they fell to their deaths. Hannibal’s army eventually completed their ascent. Over the five months they had been marching, thousands of men and animals had been killed by hostile tribes, harsh weather conditions, or falling from the steep cliffs. They rested in a valley for two days before beginning their descent. Morale was low, and they knew they had a tough journey ahead of them.
Hannibal Crossing the Alps; detail from a fresco ca 1510, Palazzo del Campidoglio (Capitoline Museum), Rome ( Wikipedia)
During their descent, the army approached a path that was covered by a landslide. Hannibal decided to take the army on a detour, but eventually determined that the path would be impossible for the army to cross. They eventually turned back towards the area covered by the landslide. Hannibal ordered the men to work in relay to clear the covered path. After one day, the pack animals were able to cross, and Hannibal ordered them down to a nearby pasture. However, it took three more days to clear the path enough for the remaining elephants to cross through.
Hannibal and his men crossing the Alps. Phaidon Verlag , 1932 ( Wikipedia)
Once in Italy, Hannibal’s army joined with anti-Roman forces in northern Italy to begin the main assault on Roman territory. Though he ravaged the Italian countryside for several years and won several important battles, he was eventually defeated by the tactics of Roman General Quintus Fabius Maximus, who realized he could defeat Hannibal by engaging his men in small, costly skirmishes, which caused his manpower to dwindle and eventually forced his retreat.